These suckers are tripping over each other to see who can be the most hopeless.
Born a decade apart, in different countries, and sharing nothing in common in terms of style of play, physical build or outward appearance – it’s probably not often that one finds Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla and Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel’s names sharing a sentence. But to begin this NHL season they’re united by their twin goose eggs in the goals column, and the inescapable fact that they’re the respective faces of two of Canada’s most unrelentingly depressing franchises.
Let’s belabor the point and go coast-to-coast because it’s pretty much crystal fucking clear that the Flames and the Maple Leafs are the two most directionless Canadian hockey teams. The Canucks are probably nearing their expiration date as an elite club, but we’re not there yet. The Oilers at least have hope (albeit false hope) and also: YakCity. The Winnipeg Jets have the new car smell, and a pretty solid team aside from their goaltender. The Montreal Canadiens have history, an exciting young blue-chip defensemen to lowball and needlessly reign in, and are surprisingly competitive this season to boot. Even the Ottawa Senators, who start out at a disadvantage on the depressing scale simply by playing home games in Kanata, have arguably the best single offensive defenseman in the game. Plus they play a fun brand of fast paced hockey.
But the Leafs and the Flames? They exist in purgatory: a fate worse than being a perennial bottom feeder. Neither team is quite good enough to sneak into the postseason, and neither club is quite bad enough to pick Seth Jones this June. Worse, due to mind-numbing paralytic forces within each organization, forces that overrule basic common sense, neither team has any imminent plans to blow it up and start anew, or to convincingly double down on chasing eighth place and beyond (and no, overpaying Dennis Wideman and Jiri Hudler doesn’t count).
U Mad, Jarome?
You could set a black and white Maple Leafs or Flames highlight package that includes only goals against, to Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” and it really wouldn’t make either team any more pitiable.
Which brings us back to Jarome Iginla and Phil Kessel, likable players who are goalless this season and spinning their wheels in respective no-win situations. It’s not for a lack of effort that either player has yet to ripple the mesh this season – both shooters are averaging over four shots per contest – it’s mostly just bad luck. But luck aside, their early season struggles cast an unflattering floodlight on the awkward truth both of these players are ill-fitting pieces that don’t fit the long-term goals of their franchises.
Before the start of his first full season with the Maple Leafs, recently deposed General Manager Brian Burke traded two first round picks (and more!) for Phil Kessel. He did so with an eye on “jump starting” a rebuilding process and in typical Maple Leafs fashion: the result was neither a rebuild, nor a jump-start. Phil Kessel was a legitimate top-line sniper and he was only 22 at the time, and at least conceptually, you’d rather have the 22-year-old top-line sniper than a couple of lottery tickets. But it was a cowboy maneuver and it backfired immediately and spectacularly, as the Leafs were just too woefully inadequate at hockey over the subsequent two seasons. Toronto ultimately ended up paying the Bruins in two top-ten picks and by the early returns; Boston appears to have hit the jackpot with both of them.
The precise moment when things started going wrong for Kessel.
When the Leafs return to the TD Garden now, Phil Kessel is greeted with obnoxious, but completely justified chants of “Thank you Kessel.” Burke appears to have set the Bruins up for the next decade, and dug the Leafs a hole that might take five or six years of stellar management to dig out of. Pretty much no matter what, the Kessel imbroglio will go down as a goat rope of epic scope for the Leafs. But even that glazes over the possibility that the situation could get even more clusterfucked up over the next sixteen months or so.
Yeap, the second most storied hockey team in Canadian history is staring at some bleak options regarding Phil Kessel’s future in the centre of the Universe. Next summer Phil Kessel will be an unrestricted free agent, and aside from Evgeni Malkin probably the top-player on the market. Not only will he demand top-dollar, but one would assume that he’d prefer to play for a club that has some pretentions of mixing in a winning season occasionally.
Will the Leafs be able to offer him that? Based on Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis’ reported unwillingness to include Toronto’s second best young asset in a trade for elite netminder Roberto Luongo, it’s not looking very likely.
The Leafs face a choice, really: either double down on Burke’s misguided gambit and try to improve the team to the point where Phil Kessel might decide to stay. Or you rebuild, in which case you should probably try to maximize the value you’ll receive in exchange for a 25-year-old forward who consistently scores thirty.
But at least Phil Kessel would fetch a bounty in return were the Leafs to decide to trade him (which of course they probably won’t). The Flames on the other hand, probably can’t even rely on that with Iginla. They’d basically be like Jawas selling low on banged up (but still useful) rebel droids to some Tatooine moisture farmers.
The Tatooine desertscape.
Now, Jarome Iginla is one of the best forwards of his generation. His run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004 is the stuff of myth and he’s a former leading goal scorer (who put up crazy numbers in the so called dead puck era). On the second most famous goal in Canadian hockey history he personally took a can opener to the American defence, and he also participated in the classiest staged fight in the history of the NHL.
To any modestly objective hockey fan, Jarome Iginla has earned a quasi-heroic status. That, and the fact that he’s still a reliable twenty goal scorer will probably help preserve some of his trade value should Calgary decide to shop him at some point this season.
But like the New Kids on the Block’s recent comeback single, the Flames have waited too long and for no good reason, and also they suck. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Iggy’s skating and defensive abilities have atrophied to the point where he’s a functional liability at even-strength. At this point in his career he’d probably be best served spending his twilight as a power-play specialist and a shooter on a line where other two-way forwards do the majority of the heavy lifting. Hey, it’s worked out for Dany Heatley in Minnesota so far!
Iginla’s contract expires at the end of this season, and if Calgary’s out of it by the trade deadline (spoiler alert: they will be) you can rest assured that Iginla trade rumblings will begin to dominate the conversation. Moving Iginla to a desperado playoff team at the deadline might cushion his diminished value somewhat, but the Flames have missed the boat on exacting the type of return that might legitimately accelerate a rebuild (as the Flames did when they first acquired Jarome Iginla, actually, for then team captain and future hall of famer Joe Niewendyk). By the way they’ve missed that boat by about two and a half full seasons. Even Michael D. Brown would describe that as inexcusable mismanagement.
Flames fans deserve better and you know what? So does Jarome Iginla. Of course the Flames also continued to add mediocre players to outsized contracts this summer so, yeah, it’s going to be a long next several seasons for Calgarian hockey fans.
So there you have it: of the two most soul-sucking NHL clubs in Canada, the Flames are the champions. Or at least that would be true if they hadn’t made the Cup Finals in the past decade, and won a cup this generation. So really it’s still the Leafs.
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @ThomasDrance
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